Life Christmas

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Happy Christmas, Red!

Sleeping in a city doorway is definitely no picnic but it helps to have a loyal four-legged friend, ­especially in the festive season. We wish our readers a ­merry Christmas with this exclusive short story from ­novelist Deirdre Purcell

A festive tale: Dublin novelist Deirdre Purcell. Photo: Adrian Weckler
A festive tale: Dublin novelist Deirdre Purcell. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Illustration from Happy Christmas, Red!
Red

Thank God for Brother Kevin. He's on his day off tomorrow, Christmas Day, and well deserved it is.

Thank God, too, for Alice Leahy and Focus and the Vincent - and for the Knights of Columbanus who bring us all out to the RDS for Christmas Dinner.

It used to be the Masons, I think, in the Mansion House, but that was a long time ago. Some say they're still involved in the Ballsbridge shindig, but who cares? I, for one, find it to be good craic and a great day out. We all look forward to it, not just for the food, plenty of it, but the singing and music and lights, the place warmed up like toast. You even leave with a little takeaway, a parcel of food and a drink and other stuff, like, maybe, a woolly hat, and a new toothbrush and paste and warm gloves and even brand new thick socks sometimes. So now, every Christmas morning, me and Red set off bright and early to be there when the doors open.

I don't care what anyone says, I like the Knights.

Illustration from Happy Christmas, Red!
Illustration from Happy Christmas, Red!

Red, who doesn't need a lead and is never tied up, has to stay outside tomorrow because they won't let him in. That's fine. He's used to that but the Christmas party is long and I always have to find him a good thick bush for shelter. One of the Knights usually helps me.

People are nice, you know, if you're nice to them. Do you remember Pat Quinn? He ran Quinnsworth years ago. He'd always stop to have a chat. Sometimes he'd vanish inside the shop and come back out with a bagful of non-perishable food, maybe tins of beans, salmon, sardines (Red loves sardines) pears, a jar of Bovril and a shop cake that won't go stale for weeks, nice and tidy in its plastic wrapping with, discreetly tucked inside, would you believe, a folded 10-bob note. That was a fortune those early times.

But for me the chat was even more important, because he made me feel like a person receiving a gift. Not a charity case. I was worth it, sort of thing?

It's funny, isn't it, how one passing remark can change the rest of your life? Pat Quinn and I we got to know each other well, because for obvious reasons I walked up to the north side a lot because I knew there was a good chance I'd meet him if Red and me hung about outside Quinnsworth. One day we were chatting away. Then he said: "You know, Ann, if you give people a nice place, even gurriers and gougers will respect it!" And he went on to tell me how people said he was mad that time when he put good carpets and nice comfy furniture into that snooker hall of his down at the Ringsend part of Pearse Street. "They said it would all be trashed in a week. But it wasn't and never was. I was right. Not one of them did anything to anything."

I missed Pat when he went to Canada and it wasn't just for the 10-bob notes. Not too many people take the time to talk about stuff other than where you're from and how did you get homeless and are you living in a hostel and "don't be spending this on drink now", when they give you a euro or two as though they're the queens of somewhere important. Anyway, me and Red stay on the move. We're not beggars, I don't use him that way and anyway, we're careful and we have the few bob from the Social and I don't drink or smoke. It's none of anyone's business that I shower only in the Night Café on Merchants Quay or that they let Red in because he can curl up so small nobody trips over him and because we'll both be in and gone in half an hour.

Pat was from Roscommon or Leitrim or Mullingar or somewhere like that, but he had the heart of a Dublinman. He really did and it's thanks to his 'give them nice things and they'll respect them', that I've always kept myself clean and well presented, as much as I can through the Vincent. They're good to me, there's a woman in one of the shops who gives me discounts. (The only problem is, they don't do underwear in that shop although if it's donated new and unused, they'll take it. Hint! Hint!)

Red
Red

And right now, my sleeping pitch is good. My doorway, up the few steps at the wide entrance of a big, glassy new office building, is sheltered under a huge canopy. I won't say where it is because if word gets out about it, I could be invaded, even lose it. For the time being, unless the wind and rain are coming from the west, I'm snug there with Red beside me and even then it's not too bad, I have a mattress roll and a terrific sleeping bag with a hood, that I got, (I think) from Simon - and one of the Spar shops lets me store them during the day. So I'm grand.

I can read and write and do arithmetic. The Ilac library is a haunt of mine, it's warm and everyone's friendly, even the immigrants. I was clever, the teacher always said. But my Ma was too strung out to notice or to give a curse. But then, I was too young to understand what was going on with her.

I was 13, almost 14, when I found her dead, her head hanging off the side of the bed. I looked at her for a while, thinking what was best to do about this. The pillow was stained with yellow dribble, watery sick, probably, so I turned it over and then lifted up her head as best as I could on to to it. I tidied up the bedclothes, cleaned the floor and the sink and then I went to her purse. She had £11, seven shillings and fourpence.

God knows where she got it, although I was old enough to have a good idea - I seemed to have a lot of uncles who liked to visit us. I emptied out her handbag and put in all the food I could find - a few rounds of sliced pan and three triangles of Calvita cheese - along with the birth certs, hers and mine, from under the cutlery in the drawer. Then I put on her coat, took one of her headscarves and a stubby bit of lipstick and stuffed them in too; I tore a page out of my copybook, scribbled out a note and after one last look, I left her there on the bed and ran over to Fitzgibbon Street.

The Guard at the desk was one of the nicer fellas, the one who, when he was on his beat and saw me, always gave me two Rolos from the packet he kept in a pocket of his uniform: "One to eat and one to put behind your ear, Ann!"

I handed him the note.

"What's this? And is that a new coat?"

"From the Vincent," I said back, "just read that, willya?" And I legged it out the door.

Even though my heart was banging, I had no problem getting on the North Wall ferry. I was big for my age, as big as my ma, so the coat and the headscarf and the lipstick, which was kind of a women's uniform at the time, got me through by just presenting my ticket and after we got to port, I followed everyone else on to the London train where I found myself sitting beside a woman who was too nosy for my liking, but who eventually wrote out her address and said I should contact her if I needed a place to stay: "Right near the centre of everything, love. Your own room and all."

"How much?" I asked.

"We can discuss that. It won't be too much. You can do a bit of housework about the place and we can come to some arrangement."

We did and I couldn't believe my luck. At first.

My room was in the attic of a three-storey red-brick boarding house in Camden - floorboards, double bed, three-legged stool, hooks on the slanted ceiling where I hung my coat - and in return for bed, board and STG£3 a week, I worked as a skivvy, not just for the woman but for seven Irish lodgers, male, working mainly "on the lump" as they called it. And it wasn't long before, one by one, they began to climb those attic stairs. I'm not going to talk too much about that side of things, just to say that they were, in the main, dog rough and I was educated into adult womanhood rather quickly. But after the first few times I developed a sort of thick veil between me and the proceedings, just let them at it.

To be fair, it didn't happen every night and when I had my maiden monthlies, as one of the men referred to the bleeding, word spread and I could have a rest for a while. Some of them threw a few shillings on the bed every so often which, initially I disdained, but then, sensibly, decided to save for my return to Ireland.

I stuck the regime for about six months, the landlady and I making no reference to this second career of mine and when I had a £100 in the kitty, one Sunday, I stole out during the afternoon lull, and, older, a lot wiser, slimmer, streetwise and determined never again to be trapped in a bedroom belonging to someone else, was on the night boat for Dublin before anyone would have missed me.

And now, decades later, this city is mine and there's barely an inch of it I haven't explored with Red. In a way it's my ma and da and brother and sister, cousin and best friend all rolled into one big generous person.

It can be a dark place in winter when daylight is short but along the Liffey is like fairyland, with blue lights in the trees and colours of all sorts in the new buildings and the cranes lit up, bright ladders to the sky.

It's dusk right now as me and Red, on our way from Dame Street to Lincoln Place, cross through Trinity and I'm looking up at the buildings when I almost bump into a man.

"Oops!" he says, sidestepping. I apologise and he smiles: "No harm done!" He's friendly, smiley, elderly, with a gentle country accent, asking about where I live and what county I'm from and so on. Normally I'm private about that kind of thing, but he has terrific dimples when he smiles - and here I am, with the lights coming on all over College Square, saying how Red and I spend our days moving all over the city, seeing the sights anew, as it were.

"D'you know you're the new Leopold Bloom," he goes in his soft voice. "You should write all this down."

I've no idea who Leopold Bloom is of course, I've heard of Orlando Bloom - maybe this Leopold is his father? But I can see Red's getting impatient. "Maybe I will," I say, "nice talking to you and maybe we'll meet again?" Then to Red: "Say goodbye to the nice man, Red?"

Red wags his tail.

"I certainly hope we do meet again," but the man looks puzzled. "Who's Red?"

"I know it's a funny name for a dog," I gaze down fondly, "but look, when the lights shine on him like now, he does look red. I think there must be a bit of setter in him."

"I see what you mean," the man goes, after a pause. "Beautiful. How old is he, d'you think?"

"Don't know, really. And he can't tell me, of course. Anyhow, see you around, what's your name? Mine's Ann."

"Brendan," he says.

"Great!" I put out my hand, he shakes it, then me and Red walk away. Having Red with me is a great way to meet people, I think, not for the first time.

But I'm fed up with that question. My doctor, is in Glasnevin, on Griffith Avenue, and up there they're always asking about Red, including about his age.

The truth is I don't know how old he is. He was fully grown when I met him, bundled up in a corner of Stephen's Green on a day when it was bucketing. That was years ago, maybe 20 or more? He hasn't changed a bit. What does it matter to anyone? Who cares?

"But you sure lucked out when I found you, didn't you?" We're trotting across the Trinity cobbles, now. And then, in response to a flick of his eyes up at me: "All right, we both did!"

When we get to the Lincoln Place gate, he pulls in front of me and, wagging away, uses those eyes to give me The Stare.

"You're a rascal, you know that? All right. How about we get a snackbox?" I bend down to ruffle the hair behind his ear - he loves that - and while I'm down there, I whisper into his ear: "I'll keep you a bit of turkey tomorrow. Happy Christmas, Red!"

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